Every night at 8 o'clock in the city of Montréal, a raucous rhythm of clacking and clanging arises from the city's burroughs, as people of all ages bang away on pots and pans to signal their resistance to Québec's Bill 78, an emergency law which sharply limits civil liberties in response to months of student protests.
Across the street from where I'm staying, local author Anne Dandurand marks 8 p.m. on her wrought-iron balcony. Drumming away on her pot, and drawing locals from around the quartier, she casts an iconic shadow against the red brick walk-up. As I grab a BIXI and bike through the Plateau, it is clear she is not alone, as children and aging boomers — hardly students — randomly march with their helter-skelter orchestras.
"Enforcing Bill 78 has only served to get people out on the streets in defiance of the law," says Jen Spiegel, a professor at Concordia University who lives in the Quartier Latin, a neighbourhood that has seen the brunt of conflict between protesters and police. "It's everybody now. People who were never involved in the student movement have come out in solidarity. Some of the most active people out on the streets, banging on their casseroles, are the elderly. There are families and kids defying this law."
Bill 78 imposes restrictions upon peaceful assembly and public expression in Québec by requiring demonstrations of over 50 people to file a route beforehand, subject to approval by police. It also limits the ability of education workers to strike and establishes no-picketing and no-protesting zones around educational institutions. The law sanctions fines of up to $125, 000 for student associations whose members break the law. Critics have pointed out that it attempts to defund student associations whose members engage in public protest otherwise protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Earlier this week, Québec's Supreme Court announced it would hear an application, filed by the student unions, to suspend sections of the law deemed unconstitutional. In late May, hundreds of lawyers gathered in their black robes of the bar to silently protest Bill 78, assembling in front of Montréal's courthouse and marching silently through the streets.
Ironically, what has galvanized broader support behind the student movement is the government's draconian response with Bill 78. While Québec is divided over the law, both Amnesty International and the United Nations have expressed concern over the law's restrictions. Maina Kai, one of two Special Rapporteurs with the UN, wrote that Bill 78 "unduly interferes with freedom of association."
Resistance against the bill has manifested itself throughout the province. Small local towns in the Laurentian mountains that are not known for their political activism have staged casseroles. Ski villages not unlike Whistler have come out in protest, with 180 people banging away on casseroles in Val-David in early June.
The widespread dissent to Bill 78 follows upon a number of issues hitting the province, including the long and drawn-out student strike over tuition hikes and increasing student debt; the introduction of fiscal austerity measures at both provincial and federal levels; allegations of government corruption in the construction industry; and accusations of mismanaged monies in the education system. Québec Premier Jean Charest has considered calling an election as early as this summer.
Indebted to education
A movement of this size has not survived solely through the actions of students alone; so-called "student" protests encompass a surprisingly wide range of people. A popular website entitled Arretezmoiquelquun.com (Arrest Me Someone!) shows pictures of hundreds of people defying Bill 78; purple-haired punks up with raging grannies and red-felted tots with their 30-something moms.
At a recent rally held on Saturday, June 2, over 25,000 people marched in the rain, with a sizeable contingent of what has become known as the "Baby Bloc" — families with kids and strollers.
One such Baby Bloc'er is graduate student Gretchen King, who marches with her toddlers. As we have wine and cheese in Parc Jeanne-Mance, analyzing the socioeconomics of the strike — yes, you can do that here — she keeps an eye on her two rugrats. One imagines how she juggles graduate studies with raising her family — and managing a tight household budget.
For Gretchen, rising tuition is only one part of the problem, which includes deregulation and corporatization of the education system and mismanagement of university funds. Rather than resolve these issues with the bureaucracy, she says that the Charest government is downloading the problem on to the next generation by raising tuition.
"You put all this work into this degree, and then you graduate with all this debt," says Gretchen. "It's essentially a punishment. It's a sentence you have to serve out. And then you're not free. You're not liberated from that debt until you pay it off."
Gretchen is concerned that raising tuition will undermine opportunities for her children. "Thank you Charest for taking money off of my table, because when you're doing a PhD it's a full-time job," she says. "You don't have time for other things." Raising tuition means taking a pay cut for graduate students, she says, as bursaries and paid research positions will not see a correlative increase in funding.
scarcely reported in the English-language media — it seemingly took articles in The New York Times and The Guardian for the Rest of Canada to notice — Québec students have been challenging a tuition hike of 82 per cent since last summer. Lacking from most reportage is the economic context in which students are protesting the hike — the rising ratio of household debt to GDP, coupled with a stagnant job market and one of the lowest minimum wages in Canada. The Bank of Canada has issued repeated warnings concerning household debt, which the Bank predicts will rise to over 160 per cent in 2012 — a worrying number that is approaching the level of the United States just before the housing crisis. Increasing tuition, students argue, will only serve to worsen the situation, with total student debt rising to over $14 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Student's debt clock — a number that does not include government loans.
Since the outset, Québec's Liberal government has been reluctant to negotiate with student unions or to discuss the issue of student debt. In response, the students have unleashed over 100 days of nightly protest in Montréal, with the larger marches, held monthly on the 22nd, consistently drawing over 300,000 people. A general strike of university and college (CEGEP) students has now become the largest and longest student strike in the history of North America, and the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. On May 18, the Québec government suspended the school year at striking post-secondary schools. Though set to resume in mid-August, it is unclear if the majority of students will return.
The small red squares that symbolize student debt are everywhere in Montréal; Canada Post union members were recently reprimanded for wearing the carré rouges. With the start of the Formula One Grand Prix this past weekend, police began searching and detaining anyone wearing a red square, dressing red or black, or even sporting red hair, with many interrogated while forcefully handcuffed — all before committing any kind of crime. Journalists have had their pictures erased without permission and backpacks and other personal property have been confiscated without reason. The atmosphere has become increasingly repressive.
Some detainments appear random. On June 5, Québec MNA Amir Khadir was detained and fined — for "breaking the Highway Code" — when a casseroles of 50 was kettled. He had joined the neighbourhood crockery when walking home from work. Coverfile journalist Justin Ling was arrested when covering a protest on May 23. Managing to tweet "I'm under attr" while cuffed, he was released after his tweet set off a hashtag firestorm, alerting a police communications staffer.
He was lucky. Some journalists have suffered their brunt of injuries and arrests. Not only exhaustion, but bruises and a few broken bones are plaguing the press corps.
CUTV is a plucky case in point. Program Director Laith Marouf was arrested on April 4 while live broadcasting at a demonstration. While the charge of obstructing a police officer was dropped, he was ticketed for "loitering." On May 20, police again charged the camera crew with batons, breaking two of Marouf's ribs. On June 7 — when rubber bullets were reportedly used against unclothed marchers — CUTV was again attacked, with equipment damaged in the fray. Questions have been raised that police are targetting journalists.
Hopes have been high that the neighbourhood casseroles had changed the tone, providing a more peaceful alternative to nightly clashes with police. For awhile, the city's police had all but given up on enforcing Bill 78, choosing instead to follow around spontaneous manifestations of kitchenware-clanging protesters with a long parade of police cars, paddywagons, and motorcycles. This changed on June 7 with the start of the Grand Prix, which has swept in a paranoia-inducing level of police on city streets and in the metro, with hundreds of reports of indiscriminate searches and seizures, as well as dozens of "pre-emptive" arrests.
For their part, the student unions have tabled solutions to the dilemma of funding education in a province suffering under soaring health care costs and crumbling infrastructure. The most viable includes reinstating a capital gains tax on financial institutions to fund education. Since seeing the tax eliminated at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, many Canadian banks are now enjoying record-breaking profits. The Charest government has publicly shown an unwillingness to consider such proposals — or to rescind Bill 78. With the government walking out of talks in early June — apparently permanently — student leaders say it will be a long, hot summer of unrest in Montréal.
Such tactics — or lack of tact — has impacted Montréal's tourist industry. Finance Minister Raymond Bachand says the crisis "is hurting Montréal" as protests disrupt the festival season.
Indeed, the Hotel Association of Greater Montréal claims that bookings are down 25 percent. The international comedy festival, Juste Pour Rire, says some ticket sales dropped 50 per cent when talks collapsed. The Grand Prix cancelled its "open door" events, where fans could wander the track and meet the drivers. That night two manifestations — a semi-naked stroll of casseroles through downtown Montréal and a march by anarchist group Black Bloc — drew a large police presence. While the anarchist protest saw its usual run-ins with the riot squad, rubber bullets were reportedly fired against creatively undressed and semi-clothed marchers, who were later chased down and beaten by police with batons.
In a province which only won significant civil freedoms through the Quiet Revolution of the '60s and '70s — including the separation of church from state — not only does the promise of universal, free education remain strong, but the civil society from which it sprang. With the police stepping up the pressure to "defend" the city's festivals, red bruises may become as common as red squares.
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